Bridge: why it's more than a game of cards

The game of bridge can be more addictive than poker machines, according to its devotees. And whether you call the game whist, contract bridge, auction bridge or just plain ol' vanilla 'bridge', there's an active world of clubs, conferences, competitions and friendship to be found, according to Margaret McKay, who tried her hand at the game for Citro.

By Margaret McKay

Bridge … what’s the big deal? 

Who doesn’t love a good game of cards? Somehow, it seems to be built into the Australian psyche.

Playing cards in teams and combining strategy, chance and fun is all part of the game of bridge. And people love it. The Australian Bridge Federation has 36,000 members.

Bridge is played in all parts of the world, and at all levels. It's usually organised and played by a local club or social group - it's even played on cruise ships. In Singapore, the game is growing in popularity, where younger people are moving in to play it.

The game of bridge has health benefits, according to 2017 research from Great Britain. Its fun, competitive element combined with socialising makes bridge both mentally and emotionally stimulating.

All that’s needed to play bridge is a small table, a pack of cards, and 2 partnerships of 2 ready to pit their wits against each other ... and the fall of the cards.

Watch this tutorial to see how bridge is played

Bridge isn't always just 'bridge'

Like all games, bridge has a few different versions and naming conventions. It can be whist, contract bridge, auction bridge or even Singapore bridge.

The game of whist is considered to be the forerunner to bridge and has been around for centuries.

Contract bridge, usually just referred to as bridge, seems to have evolved from that game around the early 15th century.

The modern game of auction bridge was heavily influenced by that railroad tycoon, yachtsman, and dashingly fine fellow in the USA in the early 20th century, Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, of the famous Vanderbilt family.

The Kiama & Districts Bridge Club in NSW has its own dedicated club rooms, where play occurs 6 days out of 7, with some days having both morning and afternoon sessions of up to 40 players.

Most bridge clubs offer beginners’ classes a few times a year, and it's usually free or low cost to join in.

Books by Paul Marston, an Australian player with significant credentials who now spends his time as a professional bridge teacher and author, seem to be the most recommended (though you might only be able to pick them up second hand or buy them online).

Citro asked Gwen why she plays bridge and says she found more time to write and play bridge once she retired from full-time work.

"I was invited to join a local social bridge group, and although it’s been a while since my lessons some years ago, it’s all coming back to me," she says.

"Look, there’s a lot to it – you play on a table of 4 in 2 partnerships. You play as a team – you and your partner – the bidding passes around the table, it’s a language all its own, as you communicate to each other what strength you have in the suits. That’s the part I love, it really keeps the brain active."

The big picture - and big competition

The global scene is controlled by the World Bridge Federation (WBF), not to be confused with the World Boxing Federation, and as far as we know, bridge is not yet a contact sport – although legends abound.

As players progress, they may choose to attend bridge conferences, held over 2 or 3 days, with participants from local areas, and interstate.

Successful partnerships may continue up through the ladder of competitions, the ultimate being the world championship events with contestants from around the globe.

At the bridge table

We talked to Maggie, another bridge enthusiast who began a few months ago, and asked her advice for budding bridge players.

"I’d suggest you find a friendly club and attend some classes. I picked up Marston’s Introduction to Bridge, on the advice of the club – it’s a concise book that covers the essentials. Start with the basics, and just add bits and pieces of technique to your bidding and playing as you gain some confidence," she says.

"The bidding is a large part of it, but then you need to play your cards right, so that you and your partner take the number of tricks you have contracted to take. Above all, see it as an enjoyable challenge, and have fun – some players are super serious, but the group I’m in, sure we try to win, but we have a lot of laughs as well."

About the game of bridge

At Maggie’s invitation, I went along to her social bridge group  – a group of around 12 where 8 people turn up regularly works well (with 4 partnerships of 2 at the 2 tables).

The group has experience levels ranging from Maggie and her partner James, who describe themselves as novices, through to players with several years’ experience, and a couple who regularly play at conference level with significant success.

While skill plays a large part in the game, so does the pure chance of how the cards fall when dealt.

"You know," said conference-level player Angus, over a cuppa and a biscuit during the break, "That last hand – we won the bidding with 4 spades, so we needed to win 10 tricks out of the 13. We were looking good, but Maggie had held back the Queen of Clubs and grabbed the last trick. They took 4, we took 9 – missed out by 1 trick – that’s how it goes sometimes. This game always keeps you on your toes."

To find out more about bridge near you, look up your local club and get involved.

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